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Golden rivers

  • Published at 12:00 am November 26th, 2016
Golden rivers

“There is gold in them thar hills.” Whether the phrase originates from the writer Mark Twain, or, slightly earlier, from Dr MF Stephenson, the Dahlonega, Georgia, Mint assayer, trying to persuade miners to stay in Dahlonega instead of joining the California Gold Rush, it has become one of the most popular quotes in worldwide financial markets, and certainly doesn’t limit itself to hills, of which Bangladesh has so few.

Noted with some of the highest levels of poverty in the world, the result of centuries of occupation, with a “coup de grace” delivered in 1971 by the occupying forces of Pakistan and their collaborators in the devastating War of Liberation, it may be hard to get the head around any connection between these lands, and gold, even today.

Although, the international financial specialists who, today, advise the rapidly growing value of the economy of Bangladesh as one of the next best places to make money, may well, in fact, associate the phrase with Bangladesh, despite a conspicuous lack of hills, except in the glorious southeast of the country. And who knows what treasures may yet lie, undiscovered, or largely unexploited, there?

In fact, of course, the rock that underlies the millions of year-old alluvial soils that certainly enrich the agricultural wealth and strengths of the nation, may well contain more than just the fossilised vegetation, morphed into coal, oil, or gas, that appears to be the only onshore mineral wealth of Bangladesh today.

But, despite such evident deficiency, that there is gold, silver, and even diamonds and other precious and semi-precious treasures amongst the geological treasures found in some proximity to the country, gold has, in fact, long been associated with the lands that are now Bangladesh.

When silver punch mark coinage began to replace traditional barter trade, it was evidently the means of acquiring the materials for the vast building tradition that is emerging from the ground

Perhaps, however, the more appropriate phrase, in the case of Bangladesh, would be: “There is gold on them thar rivers.”

In most cases, of course, that phrase might start another gold rush, panning the waters of the over 700 rivers and waters of the country.

Rivers that, for millennia even, until today, carry so many rich, diverse, and valuable cargoes, of which fabrics, and finished fabric goods, have long been a major component: Cargoes of saltpetre (the major component of gunpowder, and indigenous in and around these lands), salt and other mineral products, amongst others.

Not to forget, of course, cargoes of the precious metals themselves; and even, in the centuries in which money cowrie sea shells were negotiable currency, cargoes such as those Robert Lindsay, the late 18th century collector of Sylhet, had to organise to send collected dues, in shell form, to Dhaka.

Sadly, of course, the navigability of the rivers of the country continue rapid degeneration, with highways built at vast expense, and challenging engineering skills, often, themselves, diminishing such navigability.

However, the earliest cargoes, of which Bangladesh has, in fact, considerable archaeological, empirical, and documentary evidence, almost certainly began to be borne on the water of the lands around these three great rivers -- the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna -- thousands of years ago.

The merging of the migrants from Harappa, around the Indus valley, and those traditionally known as Aryans, in the fertile lands of the Ganges basin, are said by some archaeologists to have developed one of the world’s earliest “industrial” civilisations. What this means is, in fact, the foundations of trade, moving beyond communal self sufficiency to tradable business specialities. The result, no doubt, of this first early example of urbanisation.

Whilst precious metals are, today, in relatively short supply, except in jewellers shops, there can be little doubt that from the early centuries of the last millennium BCE, when silver punch mark coinage began to replace traditional barter trade, it was evidently the means of acquiring the materials for the vast building tradition that is emerging from the ground.

Constructions from as early as the late period before the Common Era, through such as seventh century Bitagarh, eighth century Pahapur, and so on down the ages.

The estimated, over four hundred Buddhist Vihara in Bangladesh, comprising massive quantities of such non-local materials as basalt, granite, and marble, and the very proliferation of palaces from the 12th century onward, all describe massive wealth.

Wealth, which we know to have been generated primarily by the trade that passed along the water ways of today’s Bangladesh. And that there is evidence that images of the Buddha, as well as interiors of some of these Vihara, were covered in gold, speaks more volumes for that wealth, generated by trade.

Amongst early travellers, such as Moroccan born Ibn Battuta, the Italian Nicollo de Conti, Chinese Zheng He, and English Ralph Fitch, it is not hard to gain some impression of the wealth and opulent lifestyle lived within these lands. Perhaps, however, it was Zheng He’s visit, in the early 15th century, in which “Staffs of gold” within the presence of the Nawab is the first recorded mention of the use of that particular precious metal.

However, the widest open window into the lavish possession of the precious metal comes with the description of the flotilla that carried Shaista Khan, returning to Delhi, on his recall by Emperor Aurangzeb.

Contemporary spectators, such as Sir Streynsham Master of the East India Company, and the English sailor Thomas Bowrey, reported that Shaista Khan’s flotilla included at least “laded 60 Patellas (large river craft) with silver, and … 10 with gold.” Tens, if not hundreds of tons.

The Mughals, of course, were much addicted to valuable artefacts, leaving behind many magnificent pieces of the best of craftsman treasures.

However, the only known sources of gold in the sub-continent at that time, were, and probably still are, the Hutti Mines and the Kolar fields, both in today’s Kartnatika.

Gold artefacts recovered from the prehistoric Harappan sites in north and west India have been traced to these sources, and they were amongst the earliest targets for conquest by the third Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka, in the third century BCE.

Quite apart from Hindu resistance to Aurangzeb’s somewhat oppressive regime in the late 17th century, we may not doubt that these sources of gold were much at the front of his mind in his resource draining, especially in his struggle to conquer these territories.

It is quite clear that, as reported, much, if not most of the gold in Shaista Khan’s 10 barges, was in the form of gold coinage. Coinage, we can have no doubt, since, all across the lands of Bangladesh, such coinage has been found with origins across west Asia, was the stuff of trade.

Trade that, in large part, travelled by water, and most of which travelled the waters of north India, culminating, for the most part, at the delta, that lies now at the heart of the lands of Bangladesh.

Not for nothing did James Rennel, who, commissioned by the East India Company to survey in detail, in the later years of the 18th century, the lands they had “gained” in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, also produce detailed maps of the river systems with indications of their seasonal navigability.

The mapping serves, merely, to confirm what we already assumed, but through the work of Bangladesh archaeologists, have been increasingly able to confirm that these  “streams” were, indeed, not only highways of the ancient world, but continued to be so until comparatively recent times.

They were highways that, from ancient times, reached across most of the north of the sub-continent, linked, also from earliest times, with the network associated with the Indus. And a riverine network that even linked, through the Himalayan mountains, close to the much-used networks of China.

We may well marvel at the engineering achievements that, in more recent times, have bridged the diminishing waters of these “streams,” and the highways between; at times, there have been those who have questioned whether a more low tech investment in improving the streams would not have been better.

Of course, we now know that the siphoning of the waters upstream are reducing that potential, but it may well be a long time before the waters will cease, entirely, being the highways of even the modern world.

Nevertheless, that these rivers bore, for centuries, even millennia, the people and produce from across, at least, the northern sub-continent, as well as the entire world, there can be no doubt. Cargoes, that comprised the greater part of the wealth of these very wealthy lands. Golden rivers, indeed.

Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.